Lunch Drawing #37: City Bird

Lunch Drawing #37: City Bird

Every once in a while, the young woman who works for me will have her ear-buds in and be singing one of her songs. She records under the name, “Czesha,” and she sings a trip-hoppy blend of rap, soul, and surprisingly melodic pop. Think Beyonce-meets-Massive Attack. It’s very danceable and while it is not my usual taste, it’s good and I’ve grown to like it. This kid works hard. She’s a talented visual artist as well and every day at 4:30, she runs off to the recording studio or to her studio and it is a heartening thing to observe. At 25 or 26, it’s all in front of her. Her career will become what she makes of it. It is an exciting time in one’s life.

She brings to mind the music I listen to every day and how much of it is made and sung by women. From Billie Holiday to Neko Case, each voice contains its own aural reliquary of sounds, secrets and stories; and I need all of them. Each of them evoke a different kind of picture out of me. Each of them bathe different words and feelings in light and I realize what a rare instrument the human voice is.

It never fails to astound me how Aretha Franklin can hurl her voice around the planets, or Kelly Hogan can conjure the sweetness of Harold Arlen’s, “Tis Autumn,” or how Annie Lennox, with her wounding, perfect, upper register can will us into feelings we don’t really want to have. The song, “Why” can make me bitch-up at the drop of a hat, or Emmylou Harris’ aching rendering of “Wrecking Ball”…I could go on and on. And when I flesh this out into an article, I will.

This one is for all of the Women who’ve made songs such a holy thing.

Lunch Drawing #36: Winter Indigo Bird (In a Messy Map of the Human Heart)

Lunch Drawing #36 Winter Indigo Bunting (A Messy Map of the Human Heart)This in one of those forever affected by the sad events surrounding its creation. In the middle of making this piece, I learned of the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, one of my favorite actors. The performance that has stayed with me the most was in MAGNOLIA, where he played a hospice worker trying to help a man who is at death’s door, reconnect with his son. There is such ache, compassion, and kindness in this work, it has become an indelible testament to a great talent.

His was a talent of stillness, understatement and great empathy; the idea that kindness could be strength. Godspeed Mr. Hoffman. Your every performance was a great lesson to lesser actors, which is to say, all of us.

Published in: on February 16, 2014 at 10:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing #35: Ice Bird

Lunch Drawing #35: Ice Bird

About 10 years ago, a few days before Xmas, I spotted one of these birds right outside of Marshall Fields downtown,on top of a mailbox. The birders reading this will shake their heads. This bird at that time would have no business being there,or damn near anywhere south of the Arctic Circle. I was astonished. It could not be a mistake; no other bird looks like this one. I looked around and realized, I had nobody to tell. Cell phones (or at least mine)didn’t have cameras yet. So I just stared at it.

People shoving by me in the bustle of Xmas shopping. . .there was a guy dressed like a Dickens elf pimping hot chestnuts about 20 feet away, and this bird. . .staring around. I wanted to be able to stop the whole city in its tracks and point him out; shout at the top of my lungs, “There is a snow bunting in the middle of downtown Chicago! This is really fucking RARE! Christ, go buy a lottery ticket. This is a sign!!!”
Still, nobody knew it, except me and the bird. And not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought of that bird. That maybe it is my grandmother. . .a visitation of sorts, or my father, or the many dead friends, or more likely, just a lost bird that crossed paths with the right guy who needed to be reminded of life’s magic and circumstance. What Paul Auster once called, “The Music of Chance.”

Maybe it was that.

Published in: on January 29, 2014 at 9:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing #34: Chicago Sapsucker

Lunch Drawing #34: Chicago SapsuckerThere was an event the other night at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Lincoln Park, just north of the Zoo. It was in celebration of the publication of my friend Joel Greenberg’s fascinating natural history account of the extinction of the passenger pigeon, A FEATHERED RIVER ACROSS THE SKY. It is a remarkable book about the squandering and wholesale slaughter of a single species.

In 1840, there was a description of a single flock of passenger pigeons so huge and in such great volume, it took three days for this one flock to fly over. The estimate is something like three billion birds. So many that the sky was darkened; a phenomenon reported on many other migratory paths as well. It is almost unfathomable that these birds would ever NOT be in the world. A scant fifty years later, they were gone. The last one, “Martha,” died in captivity in a Cincinnati Zoo; having never flown or even been in the wild. It is almost impossible to believe that this hearty species, a bird that could swallow acorns whole, could be wiped out in such short order.

There were “pigeon shoots” where, for days on end, yahoos with birdshot would blow them out of the sky and lure them to blinds and blast them at will, with no bag limit. One could kill as many as one could carry. They were often thrown to their pigs as a cheap food source and served in restaurants as squab.
The only grace note the extinction of the passenger pigeon affords us, is that the idea of the conservation of endangered species came to the forefront. The idea that the bounty of species this country was so blessed with might NOT be endless.

Greenberg’s book is a detective story, cautionary tale, and natural history of a species we decimated perhaps because its outsized appetites were too much like our own.  This book is every bit as vital as Rachel Carson’s, “SILENT SPRING.”

A couple of years ago, while my friend, the painter Jenny Scobel was in town, we ran across what we thought was a dead bird in the street. We stopped and Jenny went out to pick it up. It was a beautiful bird that looked to be some kind of woodpecker. While holding the bird, she jumped for a second as she realized the legs and wings were beginning to move, and then the eyes opened. Not only was the bird not dead, but the plucky little bastard wanted to fight. She wasn’t quite up to flying yet, as we’d put her on the ground and she just kind of hopped as though drunk. It seemed she was still in shock. After bringing her back to my studio, a consultation with a bird guide helped identify her as a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which actually is related to woodpeckers.

What amazed me is just how beautiful this bird was. The reds and yellows and black and white and ochres really knocked me out. I’d never held a songbird before, and had not ever realized how fragile and tough they are at the same time.

Our best guess is that she’d flown into a windshield and knocked herself out and she was by no means ready to re-enter the wild yet. She’d have been easy pickings for some cat (fucking cats) or coyote.
We found a bird rescue operation and within 30 minutes, a humorless woman with a bird bag walked through the door and gently placed the wounded bird in the bird-sack. She eyed us suspiciously, I assured her that the bird hadn’t bounced off of our windshield, and she gave me a suspect look and wordlessly left the studio. I guess all of her excess personality and compassion is reserved for her feathered friends.

This encounter made me serious start looking at birds again. I’ve been fascinated with them since childhood and I rigged some bird feeders in the back yard. Every morning is a miracle. Sometimes 30 different species of songbirds show up at my feeder–sparrows, juncos, blackbirds, finches of every kind and here and there, the odd warbler, as well as cardinals. I don’t know what it is about them that makes me so happy, gives me such peace and fills me with such wonder. Perhaps it is the idea that nature isn’t something a hundred miles away; that it surrounds us and makes city life more bearable and beautiful and wondrous–and it doesn’t cost you a thing.

Emily Dickinson once wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

For a woman who didn’t get out much, she knew her stuff. I’m betting she had a bird-feeder.

Published in: on January 25, 2014 at 5:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing #33: The Assassin Bird

Assassin Bird

The shrike is a badass It is practically a bird of prey. If you are a mouse, or a grasshopper, or a katydid, and the shrike sees you?

Well, god forgot you, my friend.

Published in: on January 20, 2014 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lunch Drawing #32: Yellow Bird at a Carnival of Last Chances

Lunch Drawing #32 Yellow Bird at a Carnival of Last Chances

Not long ago I watched the documentary, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM, which chronicled the careers, fates, and unrealized dreams of the amazing women who gave rock and roll its most defining sounds, from Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” to Merry Clayton’s bewitching and hair-raising turn in “Gimme Shelter” which, for me, was the bell tolling for the 1960’s and the generation of love. After that, it was Nixon’s America.

This film is an invaluable document that draws the line between a performer and a singer, as well as the razor-thin line between success and failure, and damned little of it has much to do with talent, and everything to do with desire and the vagaries of chance.

This is a funny word. . .”chance.”

My father used to tell me that gambling had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with chance. After seeing this remarkable film, I now know what he means.

Watching Lisa Fischer coax the sound of a Sting song out of the ether and her own spiritual connection to sound, I realize she is a truly spiritual conduit to every sound she has ever heard, and can channel them at will. She is an artist. Sting is a performer and, taking nothing away from him, he IS talented. But Ms. Fischer is the keeper of a gift, and to watch her sing in this film is astonishing. There are not words that adequately define her instrument.

Sting is a star, but the thing I remember about him is that his songs function as a vessel for towering voice of Lisa Fischer.

This one is for her, and all of those remarkable women.

Published in: on January 17, 2014 at 6:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Lunch Drawing #31: The Ice-Man’s Bird

The Ice Man's Bird

There is a silhouette of a woman in each of these drawings. That woman is my grandmother who, every morning, would toast a couple of pieces of bread and put jelly on them. She would then dice them up and toss them out the back door for the birds. When I asked her why she was giving our bread to the birds she would hold a finger up to her lips and tell me, “Listen. . .”

When I did, I heard blackbirds, mourning doves, warblers, finches,and sparrows.  My grandmother, Mae, would look down at me and tell me, “For a piece of bread, you can hear God sing.”

Some stories write themselves.

Published in: on January 10, 2014 at 7:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing #30: The Winter Lark

Lunch Drawing #30: Winter LarkWhen kids are in high school, doodles usually adorn every surface of their textbooks; at least they did on mine. I loved scribbling on the back of my tablet, or in the margins of my history book, or just on loose leaf and in notebooks. Anything was better than listening to the teacher and taking notes on whatever bullshit they were going on about.

What I’ve most enjoyed about making the “Lunch Drawings” is just how much they remind me of those drawings I made trying to escape the mind-numbing and mundane crap they tried to teach me in school. With very few exceptions, my teachers talked like a roll of toilet paper. One bloodless, colorless theory after the next, until I had annihilation fantasies about blowing up my high school. The history I was taught was a lie. The math, I can do with a calculator. The English lit was the boring shit only Catholic schools would teach.

I went to a high school with no windows. At least in grade school, I could look outside at the birds. This became my great escape, and when I drew them, it became even better.

Often the drawings wound up situated in the middle of the crazed and vulgar doodles that I made. I didn’t realize it was my subconscious telling me to broom the rest of this shit and just go somewhere and draw.  Eventually I got it. Drawing birds and naked girls became my passport to what the nuns used to call, “Tony World.” I liked it there.

I could do whatever the fuck I wanted there. When I was drawing, nothing that the teachers, cops, or other pain-in-the-ass authority figures had to say meant dick. It was all a blur and I learned how to shut out the noise, and listen to the music in my head.

Published in: on January 5, 2014 at 12:57 am  Comments (1)  

Lunch Drawing #29: The Snow Wren

The Snow Wren

It seems like the end and the beginning of every year I draw birds. I always told myself that rather than do anything stupid like retiring, my idea of retirement would be drawing birds and naked women. I don’t mean “nudes.” I mean NAKED WOMEN. There is a difference. I also decided I would just make up some birds. Rather than draw the many existing species, I’d just make up my own. This is one of those. As far as I know, there is no such thing as a “snow wren.” There could be; I haven’t looked it up. There are snow buntings, snowy owls, and snow geese; so it stands to reason that there could be such a thing as a “snow wren.” I don’t care if there is or not. This little bird came to me as I watched my feeder on Xmas morning. All of the colors in this bird were present at the feeder that morning. On a blanket of snow ; the colors of each bird were sharp and lovely and alive with the exigence of a winter feeding and I realized I could distinguish the different kinds of birds because of the high relief of the white ground. I could suddenly tell a purple finch from a red-headed house finch. . .and this is harder than it sounds. The different sparrows, of which there are many kinds, now are distinctive to me. Does it mean I am a better bird watcher? Probably not. It just means I’m still learning how to see; and for this, I am grateful.

Published in: on December 31, 2013 at 1:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing #28: Walk on the Wild Side (Drawing for Lou Reed)

Lunch drawing 28: Walk on the Wild Side

There was a memorial held for Lou Reed last night in New York City at the Apollo, which Lou would have loved. In its heyday, the Apollo was THE showcase for artists of color. All of the greats passed through there at one time or another; James Brown, Little Richard, Etta James, and all of the great doo-wop groups. Growing up, Lou loved Dion. Later in life, the two men became good friends through Doc Pomus. Last night, according to Penn Jillette’s and Salman Rushdie’s posts ; some of those old lights were relit.

It may seem hard to understand at first that Lou started his career writing doo-wop songs, but if you think about it, this glorious street corner music echoes though out Lou’s work, particularly in Walk on the Wild Side, where this idiomatic American sound becomes an earthy, gritty rock and roll aria.

In the “Doo-do-do-do-do” chorus there are precisely 64 “doo’s.”

It is like a driving lullaby; an incantation, an urgent come-hither invitation to the other side.

About two years ago, I hosted a dinner at Les Halles in New York, the night before my show was to open in Brooklyn at Pierogi. I usually invited about 30 of my friends and crew because opening night is too much of a madhouse to figure anything like this out.

I brought my assistant Jesse Sioux Achramowicz. She is a big Lou Reed fan, particularly the Velvet Underground. She was born in 1988 and having gone through a total identity transformation entering high school, she discovered punk rock, like all young artists seem to do. The writings of Lou and Patti Smith became beacons of light to her, poetry of rebellion which spoke to her in loud, bold strokes. It gave her a floor to dance upon. Lou, in particular, resonated with a young artist searching for her own voice.

Jesse Sioux is a unique human being. She’s the best assistant I’ve ever had and the most unusual. She dresses in a very different outfit every day. One day she will have bangs and a florescent orange matching bag and shoes, the next she will have a pile of blue, green, and lavender dreadlocks with Malcom X glasses and jewels in her teeth. She is only like herself; and one of the kindest human beings I know.

She was sat directly across from Lou and she was freaked, with her hero sitting eyeball to eyeball across from her. They talked all night; Lou, the kindly punk-rock uncle telling stories and discussing dogs, iPhones, technology (Lou loved gadgets and so does Jesse) and you’d have thought they’d known each other their whole lives. It was the Lou I knew–kind, intelligent and generous of spirit.

Jesse was over the moon to have had a conversation with Lou. I chose to make a portrait of her for this chorus of the song because I suspect Lou knew that Jesse, and young people like her, were exactly who he wrote that song to set free.

Published in: on December 17, 2013 at 5:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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Lunch Drawing 27: Drawing for the Back-Up Singers (Drawing for Lou Reed)

Lunch Drawing 27: Drawing for the Back-Up Singers (Drawing for Lou Reed)In the marvelous documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom, the career trajectory of a great many female back up singers is traced, including Merry Clayton, whose hair-raising vocals on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter still induce awe and chills with each listening. She remarks that she was a girl trained in the church, and that when the call came very late at night to sing the Stones song, she was appalled by the lyrics, “…rape, murder, it’s just a shot away…”, but this was her job and at the time, she was pregnant and had mouths to feed.

It is not possible to overestimate the soul-rending beauty these women added to rock and roll music right from the beginning.

Many of our leading female stars started out singing behind lesser talented male singers. Sheryl Crow started behind Don Henley and Michael Jackson, as did Lisa Fischer. Bette Midler sang behind many stars and in bathhouses before breaking out on her own. Detroit’s luminous Bettye LaVette was a back-up singer on Motown songs. The list goes on and on.

Lou Reed, who loved doo-wop. pays homage to these women in Walk on the Wild Side with what now sounds like a very Un-P.C. lyric: “…And the colored girls go, ‘Doo-Do-do-do-do-Doo-do-do-do-do-do-do’,” which I’m sure was written with the utmost empathy and, in fact, written to shed a light on the very often unappreciated and underpaid women who gave rock and roll its grace notes.

Published in: on December 11, 2013 at 7:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing 26: Kid Hustle

Kid HustleThe New York City of 1972 was a desperate, narcotic haze of failed urban planning, poverty and criminality. Mayor John Lindsay had inherited a city teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, rife with racial and social unrest, and hobbled by strikes of every kind by city workers and other labor unions–as well as a blackout; in which the power grid went down and made the city doubly terrifying. New York City, for a time, resembled the Gomorrah that the rest of America thought it was.

Lindsay was considered presidential timber, and briefly abandoned office to run for president in the 1972 primaries. He dropped out soon enough after a few poor showings. His opponents, quickly pointed out what they considered the ruinous condition of New York City. Lindsay became an easily assailable candidate.

John Lindsay was an odd duck in New York politics. He was Kennedy-handsome, liberal (but not too liberal) and in any other environment, an attractive prospect for the presidency. Though, with New York as the backdrop for his ambitions, the foundation of his political structure, an example of his leadership…he was fucked.

John Lindsay started out in politics as a Republican. It’s thought that civil rights is what led him to jump to the Democratic party, though it was probably more to better his chances in New York City as a pol.

While every news outlet in the country was writing New York City’s obit; the city’s cultural zeitgeist roared forward. Its artistic activity manifested itself in one of the richest periods in the city’s history. A cursory look around the landscape found Warhol, The Velvets, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Johns, Ana Mendieta, Eva Hesse. . .this list goes on and on. The New York of 1972 was affordable. The city of disrepair was a place artists of every stripe could find a way to survive, create, and thrive. All they had to do was hustle.

Published in: on December 5, 2013 at 11:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Lunch Drawing 25: Kid Apollo (Drawing for Lou Reed)

Lunch Drawing #25 Kid Apollo (Drawing for Lou Reed)

Lou Reed’s 1992 masterpiece, “Magic and Loss” is informed by the deaths of two friends; the great American songwriter, Doc Pomus, and Warhol factory regular Rotten Rita.

Pomus, of course, is one of the honored presences in the rock and roll canon who wrote a slew of hits as part of the Brill Building creative brain-trust; a generation of songwriters that included Stoller and Leiber, as well as Gerry Goffin, Phil Spector, and Carole King. Pomus wrote the lovely and longing “This Magic Moment,” which Lou later covered for the soundtrack of a rather forgettable film. Lou’s version is elegiac and heartfelt, concluding a with a coda for his departed friend at the tail end of the song, comprised of the title of another Pomus chestnut,”Save the last dance for me, Babe.”

Lou’s rendering of this song is almost as quiet and intimate as a prayer. Only Mike Rathke’s thundering guitar hints at the howling absence of Doc himself.

Pomus was an American treasure who wrote hits for a great many singers and bands throughout his long career. “Sweets for my Sweet,” “Turn me Loose,” and “Little Sister” were all Pomus songs, as well as “Lonely Avenue,” the song that came to define Ray Charles in the late ’50s, and has been covered by everyone from Los Lobos to Van Morrison. The influence of the former Jerome Solon Felder is incalculable.

Doc started out as a blues singer, very often being the only white guy in the clubs. As a polio victim, who walked with the aid of crutches and as well as being Jewish, Doc felt the underdog kinship with African American musicians and very often, he explained his songs by saying he wrote them for “…those people stumbling around in the night out there, uncertain or not always so certain of exactly where they fit in and where they were headed.”

Doc’s songs remind me of nothing so much as the Edward Hopper painting, “Nighthawks,” painted a full generation before rock and roll–with their lonely, longing hues of the night ending with nobody to hug or a hand to hold.

Songs of love and loss had immense purchase on the work of Lou Reed. Those departed, and those estranged,  haunt almost every song in Lou’s catalogue. From “The Sword of Damocles” to “The Halloween Parade” to “The Finish Line,” Lou informs us there are no proportions in grief and loss; only shadow, only memory, and only the songs.

Published in: on November 26, 2013 at 2:03 am  Comments (1)  

Lunch Drawing #24 Candy Came From Out On The Island In “Walk on the Wild Side,” several of Andy Warhol’s “Superstars” converge from their various former lives to New York City–a place where they can be who they were meant to be, where they can shed their former mundane or suffocating identities and transform. A place of freedom. For those from outside of this milieu, it is a hard thought to square with the New York City of 1972. Crime-ridden, virtually bankrupt, and radiant with a dangerous kind of glamour, New York didn’t seem to be a place where one could be free. All of the movies and entertainment of this era, from the “Godfather” and “The French Connection,” to small films like “Panic in Needle Park,” rendered a place in ruins and lengthening shadows. Little did the Aamerica west of the Hudson know, that The Factory, Warhol’s studio, would be a propulsive engine of cultural change from Lou and the Velvets to Interview Magazine and the seminal beginnings of punk rock, glam rock, and the explosion of art and music in the East Village. Between Warhol and Lou, a lot happened, and a great many artists, musicians and writers lost and found their place in the culture they created. The “Superstars” starred in Warhol’s movies and many weren’t really actors. Warhol revered them as entities and, in some sad cases, ciphers. All of them though, were thoroughly seduced by the thought of fame, -even when staring blankly into the lens of Warhol’s Dream Machine.

Published in: on November 23, 2013 at 1:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Lunch Drawing 23: Lady Eyebrows

Lunch Drawing 23: Lady Eyebrows

One night in Manhattan, my friend, Bob Chase, and I met up with Lou Reed to attend a benefit for Prospect 1, the first-ever New Orleans Biennial. It was at the Core Club, a kind of fancy-schmancy, arts-positive club that had graciously agreed to host the event. While standing outside, Lou told us of how “Walk on the Wild Side” came into being. It was initially written for a musical based on Nelson Algren’s novel of the same name. When the financing failed to materialize, Lou switched out Algren’s New Orleans demimonde for Warhol’s Factory denizens and achieved the only top 40 hit of his career.

Never before had Top 40 radio had a song that spoke so clearly to the “other”–junkies, gay people, and other square pegs who existed in the margins of American life.

The first time I heard it I was in seventh grade, wearing black pants, a white shirt and a red tie (the Catholic school uniform of St Pius X)and I remember thinking that I didn’t know completely what this song was about, but I knew it had something to do with me.

It was one of those moments that set me free and let me know that there was another side.

It probably isn’t Lou’s best song, or even his best-known song, but it is the one that reached into the white-bread heart of America and announced that the freaks and misfits and others who chose a life outside of the lines weren’t going anywhere to hide any more, and this was not a small thing. Lou broke down the door, and the rest of us got to walk through it.

Published in: on November 14, 2013 at 7:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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